The Godless Jungle
Only God Forgives (2013) Review
By Adam Tawfik
At the most basic plot level, Only God Forgives seems identical to countless other male-oriented revenge action flicks; a handsome, young white man Julian (Ryan Gosling) is pressured to avenge the murder of his brother Billy (Tom Burke). In the hands of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, God rises above the tediousness of most action fare on every level.
Amidst an epidemic output of gimmicky CGI or 3D flicks or equally unimaginative remakes of iconic classics that have flooded the Hollywood market in the last few years, God’s commanding surrealistic scenery is welcomed in an era where most directors pay little (if any) attention to mise-en-scene.
God, like Drive, Refn’s pervious film (also starring Gosling), is primarily a stylistic achievement. Although Drive sported some of the most jaw-dropping cinematography with virtually every frame as a colorful phantasmagoric orgasm, a vapidity in the narrative bogged down the overall film.
God evocatively employs mise-en-scene to convey the ominousness of the seedy side of Bangkok, particularly in its innovative but unsettling low-key neon red and yellow color scheme. Fused with a flurry of deep dark shadows, these normally warm colors add an anarchic psychedelic layer to a somber noir-like landscape.
The squalidness is reinforced in the background scenery. The large warehouse-like quality of many of the locations contribute an animalistic, subhuman quality to the proceedings. Alternately, other locations such as the nightclub with heaps of Chinese Lanterns and crowds of people still project a hollow emptiness in spite of the clutter. The nightmarish dream sequences with characters running around narrow corridors with red walls are aesthetically similar to Dario Argento’s Inferno and carry the paranoia and perplexity of the corresponding scenes, minus the camp.
God’s story and atmosphere is certainly harsher (perhaps too rough for many critics’ and audiences’ tastes), but ultimately more compelling than Drive’s. Yet it has been widely condemned as an incoherent, gratuitously violent mess.
This is because the filmmakers take an abstract, often un-PC stance on violence. On the one hand, they effectively present a dystopic world where violence is a necessary evil for survival, but at the same time, show how it spawns a vicious cycle of insanity. What gives God its power to disturb and transfix is its handling of the uneasy balance between rapid, senseless acts of violence and calculated personalized murders committed at an uncomfortably prolonged pace.
The lapses of silence in these latter types of sequences don’t feel ponderous like they did in Drive, because they all contribute to creating mood and character. In one particularly off-kilter sequence, all the clients and prostitutes of the nightclub blankly stare (with the exception of a female prostitute) as head vigilante Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) progressively slices a henchman associated with Julian’s family (Gordon Brown) to death, giving the impression that this kind of brutality is quotidian.
The moral ambiguity of the central characters gives the actors something to sink their teeth into. In his previous film with Refn, Gosling’s pretty-boy mannequin-esque persona struck me as too inorganically sanitized for the role of a daredevil stuntman-by-day-hit-man-by-night operating in LA’s criminal underworld and the romantic subplot with Carey Mulligan was pointless.
God lets him draw on his delicate looks to create a vulnerable character whose cerebral demeanor isolates him from the ultra-sadistic misogynists surrounding him. Gosling convincingly shows the inner turmoil between taking issue with the violent status-quo (in particularly in avenging the death of his murdering rapist brother) and latent violent misogynist urges acted out towards Mai, an “entertainer” (bewitchingly portrayed by Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) in his fantasy to compensate for his impotence.
Due to the predictably linear narrative and one-note archetypes in Drive, there was no doubt that the protagonist would be victorious. God offers no such assurance for Julian. Gosling bravely sheds the infallibility of the typical action hero as he allows himself to be beaten to a pulp several times on-screen by several people less virile than himself.
The most surprising adversary is Lt. Chang. As an average height, slightly portly middle aged man with soulful eyes, he hardly seems to be a formidable opponent for the muscular Gosling. But deception is his strength and Pansringarm believably projects a quiet but deadly ferocity, and in some scenes he appears and disappears as rapidly as a phantom. Even at his most heinous, Pansringarm brings an earnest and wise quality to his role.
In many respects Chang, not Julian, is the film’s true hero as he is the off-kilter God. Only he can exercise the right to moral vigilantism. In one altercation with the distraught father of the slain prostitute, who has just murdered Billy, Chang chops off his hand, reminding him that “This isn’t about your dead daughter. It’s about your three living daughters. This is to make sure you never forget them.” At the same time he is the most grounded character; he is the only one with a stable family unit and sings karaoke with his colleagues.
The most astounding revelation is Kristen Scott-Thomas, who sheds all traces of her elegant English sophistication in a bravura performance as Crystal, Gosling’s sadistic revenge-crazy matriarch. Audaciously resembling a white-trash komodo dragon, her uninhibited kinkiness and aggression is the root of Julian’s central conflict between his reluctance and morbid fascination with sex and violence.
Crystal makes no pretense of her partiality towards the brutish Billy over the passive Julian, whom she considers weak. In one darkly humorous scene, she belabors her comparison of Julien’s average-sized cock in favor of Billy’s “enormous” one in front of Mai, whom he has hired to act as his girlfriend, while he silently sits in shame. Hearing Scott-Thomas call Mai’s vagina a “cum-dumpster” makes this film required viewing.
God’s divisively zealous reception resembles that of Oliver Stone’s 1994 classic Natural Born Killers, which was also met with heaps of controversy and disparagement for its excessive violence. Stone and Refn are savvy at translating their heavy-handed directorial style into energetic, stylistic films that have the courage to provoke and disturb. If Killers can receive the love it deserves (even if it was ten years belated), here’s hoping that God will receive its deserved glory too.